The surprising advances by jihadists in northern and western Iraq have produced at least one unsurprising result: accusations that President Obama’s “abandonment” of Iraq is responsible for the catastrophe. Critics have launched a two-pronged attack on the administration’s Iraq policy: They blame Obama for being unwilling or unable to reach a deal with Baghdad to leave U.S. troops in Iraq beyond the Dec. 31, 2011 deadline for withdrawal established by the Bush administration; and they asset that such a residual presence would have proved decisive in heading off the current calamity. Neither criticism withstands much scrutiny.
Here are the facts.
As the senior Pentagon official responsible for Iraq policy during the first three years of the Obama administration, I had a front-row seat for the internal deliberations over how to end the war. Through the first half of 2011, there was a vigorous debate within the administration about whether U.S. forces should remain in Iraq beyond December, and if so, in what numbers and with what missions. Ultimately, at great political risk, President Obama approved negotiations with the Iraqi government to allow a force of around 5,000 American troops to stay in Iraq to provide counterterrorism support and air cover and to train the Iraqi army. But, as commander in chief, he was unwilling to strand U.S. forces in a hostile, anti-American environment without the legal protections and immunities required to ensure soldiers didn’t end up in Iraqi jails. These protections, which are common in nearly every country where U.S. forces operate, were guaranteed under the 2008 status of forces agreement negotiated by the Bush administration; Obama simply demanded that they continue under any follow-on accord.